This was Larry Fedora’s message, over and over in recent weeks, to the North Carolina defense, a message that he emphasized especially after the Tar Heels’ defensive players had watched the offense win consecutive games with dramatic, last-second plays:
Your time is coming. One day, this will be you.
Days before the Tar Heels’ 20-13 victory at No. 16 Miami on Saturday, Fedora said it again. It came up after the defense had beaten the offense at the end of practice in a two-minute drill earlier in the week, and Fedora spoke of translating what had happened then into a tense, make-or-break moment in a game.
“There was going to come a time when they were going to be on the field in the last two minutes,” Fedora said. “And they’re going to have to get it done.”
Then it happened on Saturday, the exact circumstance that Fedora had described: the Tar Heels’ clinging to a shrinking lead, the tension mounting, the defense needing to make a stand to preserve a victory.
At times, the Tar Heels’ maligned defense, considered to be the weakness of a team known for its offensive power, has thrived in these situations during practices. Like earlier in the week, for instance. But during the season, at least, the defense had yet to carry the Tar Heels to victory.
Before Saturday, the defense had yet to seal a victory. But all of that changed in the span of a few seconds late in the fourth quarter, when Malik Carney, the sophomore defensive end, sacked Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, forcing him to fumble.
The ball bounced on the ground a time or two, with Jeremiah Clarke, a sophomore defensive tackle, reaching for it once, and then again. Finally, he simply collapsed on it, securing a turnover that ended Miami’s hopes and preserved UNC’s long-term goal of winning the ACC’s Coastal Division.
“We finally got it done today,” said Nazair Jones, the junior defensive tackle, and that was the refrain again and again in the aftermath: That, at last, the Tar Heels’ defense made a decisive stand that won a game.
UNC’s defense had endured its share of criticism throughout the first half of the season. It came from outside the program, from fans and media, and from inside, as well, where Gene Chizik, the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator, has often chided his unit’s lack of execution and resolve.
“We don’t want to always put the pressure on the offense,” said Jones, one of the defensive leaders, “and we don’t want to have the media talk bad about the defense every week.”
For a beleaguered unit, then, this was new ground: a game-winning play – or, at least a game-preserving play. In somewhat similar circumstances, the defense failed earlier this season to keep Florida State from whittling into a large lead.
In that game, the Tar Heels led 21-0 before the Seminoles took a late 35-34 lead. The Tar Heels won with Nick Weiler’s 54-yard field goal as time expired but, nonetheless, the defense left afterward feeling like it had let the team down, and put it in a precarious position.
“That was my message at halftime,” Jones said, “was not having that Florida State thing come back for this game. At Florida State, we got off of them and we gave them a chance to get back into the game.
“And our message at halftime was to not let that happen again.”
Miami had its chances. The Hurricanes trailed 20-3 at halftime, and then it was 20-10 late in the third quarter, and 20-13 midway through the fourth, after UNC freshman Myles Dorn saved a touchdown when he forced Miami’s Joe Yearby out of bounds after a 42-yard run.
That play cause Miami settle for a short field goal. And yet the Hurricanes had hope, still, after forcing UNC to punt on its next drive. The Tar Heels’ offense failed to score on any of its six second-half drives, which allowed Miami to hang around and hang around.
Until Carney sacked Kaaya, forcing the fumble that Clarke recovered with 1 minute, 27 seconds to play. Carney and Clarke, both sophomores, were teammates at T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va. They were used to this sort of thing, then, coming together to make a memory.
Carney said later he had done this before.
“In high school, yeah,” he said, smiling.
But in college he hadn’t. And that was among Fedora’s greatest satisfactions on Saturday: that young defensive players made their first game-changing plays.
Carney with the sack and the forced fumble. Clarke with the recovery, eventually.
“I saw my high school teammate Malik Carney (cause the) fumble, and I just wanted to put the icing on the cake,” Clarke said.
And by that he meant he tried to pick up the fumble and return it for a touchdown. Before those final moments, a rain storm had blown into the area, making for some slick conditions.
That was a factor, Carney said, in Kaaya’s fumble. And perhaps one in Clarke’s brief dance with the ball before he finally secured it.
“I want to believe in my heart of hearts that if it wasn’t raining, that might be a different situation,” Carney said. “I might still be in that end zone, jumping up and down.”
There was cause for celebration, anyway, for the Tar Heels, and especially for their defense. Afterward, Carney’s teammates were chanting his name in the locker room. Clarke was surrounded, telling the story of his recovery.
The Tar Heels’ defensive line, in particular, has experienced turmoil this season amid injuries and attrition and ineffectiveness. The injury situation became dire enough on Saturday that Marlon Dunlap, a freshman the coaching staff had planned to redshirt, played for the first time.
And so this was a moment a long time coming for the defense, and in particular the defensive line. Jones and his teammates there savored it. Weeks after they felt responsible for a near-collapse at Florida State, they returned to this state and produced their finest moment.
The victory, UNC’s record eighth consecutive on the road, gave the Tar Heels two road victories against ranked teams for the first time in school history. First at Florida State. Now Miami.
“Florida State champs,” Jones said while people nearby packed for UNC’s trip home.